Kane County History: The Burlington Zephyr — A 'Silver Streak' Through Aurora

Kane County History: The Burlington Zephyr — A ‘Silver Streak’ Through Aurora

  • Editor’s Note: This article is part of a weekly series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was written by Mary Clark Ormond, president of the Aurora Historical Society. All images are courtesy of the Aurora Historical Society.

The Burlington Zephyr train occupies a unique place in railroad history. It was conjured into being over a span of just two years at the height of the Great Depression, and it still stands today as one of the most remarkably beautiful expressions ever seen of industrial innovation driven by market demand.

In railroading, nothing was ever the same again.


This is what most trains looked like during the 1930s.

In the early 1930s in the U.S., rail travel, once the king of transportation, was experiencing a slowdown. There were already more than 20 million automobiles on the road, eating into the short-line transportation market, and airplane travel was becoming a commercial reality.

Perhaps most importantly, the Depression had slowed industry, reducing the demand for freight transportation and making it clear that any growth in railroading would have to come from passenger service.

Unfortunately, there had been few recent innovations to the ponderous, steam-driven “Iron Horse”, so getting where you wanted to go on the rails was not much different from the way it had been for nearly a century.

Rail travel faced serious challenges.

A Visionary At The Helm

Ralph Budd

Ralph Budd, president of the Burlington Railroad, was worried.

A forward-looking man with an open mind, at the age of 27, he had overseen the engineering for the railroad across the Isthmus of Panama, then capped a stellar career at the Great Northern Railroad by becoming president at the early age of 44.

He took the reins of the Burlington on Jan. 1, 1932, meeting head-on the challenges of the era and the industry.

He had the imagination to envision a new kind of high-speed and comfortable passenger travel that would turn a profit for the company. And he had the energy to scout the country for new ideas that could make that happen.

Perhaps ironically, it was the automobile that showed him the way to his dream train.

E.G. Budd

A Philadelphia manufacturer of automobile bodies, the E.G. Budd Company (no relation) had been experimenting with the new German invention of stainless steel, an alloy of low-carbon steel, chrome and nickel. They had solved the major problem of stainless steel, namely the material failure and rust which often resulted when conventional rivet welding was used.

With their new process, an electrical heat fusion called shotwelding, Budd foresaw that a train capable of great speeds could now be safely made from lightweight and durable stainless steel.

There was another problem, though, and that was sufficient motive power to make a train go faster than anyone had yet dreamed. Budd found the solution at the Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago, where a new General Motors diesel engine was on exhibit.

Already familiar with the reliability and low operating expense of diesel power, which he had used to ventilate a railroad tunnel he built in the state of Washington, he immediately ordered a GM diesel engine to create the electricity for the stainless steel train he was having built back in Philadelphia.

The size and weight of a motor that could run a train at 100 miles per hour required a revolutionary mount, and GM provided that, as well. Cast from an alloy of chromium, manganese and silica, which was especially light in weight, it distributed the weight of the engine directly to the frame of the locomotive and even allowed for a boost in horsepower from 600 to 660, enough to run the train’s amenities without draining any motive power.

With the body of the train and the engine that would propel it in production, Ralph Budd turned to another requirement: someone to run the train.

Who Wants To Drive?

This turned out to be a knotty problem. Not a single engineer in the entire company volunteered.

The men considered the proposed train to be a death trap. In their view, a train so light and traveling so fast would simply fly off the tracks. After all, a steam locomotive all by itself — with a top speed of 60 miles per hour — weighed twice as much as the entire three-car Zephyr train which was proposed to run at 100 miles per hour.

Aerodynamics were not well understood at the time, but two of the designers of the train, Albert Dean and his older brother, Walter, young aeronautical engineers were just out of MIT and confident that, with a greatly lowered center of gravity, the faster the train traveled the more strongly air pressure would press it down onto the tracks.

In their design, the new train would be about 20 percent lower to the rails, allowing it not just to go fast, but to take curves at surprising speeds. They thought, and shortly proved, a train like that could beat any competition, including automobiles and airplanes.

But throughout the Burlington company, no train driver expressed the slightest interest in proving that.

Aurora’s Jack Ford

One of the Burlington’s best engineers was John Seymour “Jack” Ford. At age 57 he was a seasoned engineer with the skills, the judgment and the personality of a test pilot. He was just who Ralph Budd was looking for.

Born into a farming family in Batavia, Ford had been working his way up the ladder with the Burlington for three decades when he was drafted for the job of driving the Zephyr. He had begun in Aurora as a fireman on an old steam locomotive about 1900, and lived at various addresses on the east side except for some assignments in Burlington company locations like Galesburg and Omaha.

Jack Ford’s house.

By 1932 he was living with his wife, Ella, and children Herbert, Dorothy and Merritt, in Aurora at 423 South Ave. By 1952, he lived at 430 5th Ave., which may be where Merritt later operated a Christmas tree business.

The records don’t make it clear, but it is possible Ralph Budd may not have explained to Ford everything he had in mind for this train. He sent Ford off to Philadelphia with some air brake specialists and mechanics to run the train for testing, and certainly speed was a factor. But breaking a speed record was not, it seems, mentioned.

At first.

Jack Ford was the first, and for a while the only, engineer to run the new train. On April 9, 1934, he conducted the first test run, 24.8 miles in Pennsylvania, where it attained a speed of 104 miles per hour. The cat was most certainly out of the bag. The Burlington had something special.

The company immediately began aggressive marketing. For the next month or so, Jack barnstormed the east coast doing public relations stops, including the christening of the train on April 18 in Philadelphia.

The biggest of the publicity efforts that the company would make for their new train, however, was planned for May 26, 1934, when the train was scheduled to make a nonstop run for distance and speed between Denver and Chicago, concluding with a dramatic arrival of the train at the Century of Progress Fair, where just a year earlier Ralph Budd had been inspired by that GM diesel engine.

To prove the point that the Zephyr was really going to revolutionize rail travel, the run needed to be nonstop at top speed, which presented a huge problem for safety.

For various reasons, there could be absolutely no accidents along the way, so Budd assigned employees to act as flagmen and recruited Boy Scouts and other volunteers to guard the 1,700 public and private grade crossings along the way. Switches were locked and in high-risk areas were actually spiked into place to prevent tampering.

The School Boy, The Radio and The Burro

In addition, for the benefit of the awestruck public as well as the railroad, there was another innovation. The location of the train was to be tracked continuously by wireless radio, using Morse Code.

Perhaps fittingly, given the new era that this train was ushering in, the radio operator was a 17-year-old East Aurora High School senior, a classmate of Merritt Ford.

Wayne Wigton

Wayne Wigton had been an amateur radio operator since the age of 11, and for this historic run, he concocted a brand-new, and once-only, system of communication with station masters along the way.

Sitting in the baggage car behind the locomotive, he sent messages by code to his home station at 328 Clark St., using a row of 12-inch antennas mounted according to his own design atop the roof of the locomotive.

Back in Aurora, wires were strung from his house to the dispatcher’s office in the nearby Burlington depot. Using the existing telegraph system of the railroad, the Aurora dispatcher was able to continuously relay the location of the train to the world.

Not surprisingly, after graduation Wigton went on to a long career with the railroad, serving as communications director until 1977.

Perhaps to demonstrate their confidence in the new train, several dignitaries were on board for the run, including Burlington President Ralph Budd, Budd Manufacturing President Edward Budd, and Winton Engine Board Chairman H.H. Hamilton.

Merritt Ford

Adding to the stress of the day was a very different sort of passenger. It was a burro, known as the Colorado Canary, no doubt for his sweet song, but renamed, for the event, Zeph.

His presence was another public relations stunt, meant to represent, at this moment of modernity, the earliest form of transportation in Colorado. It was also meant to capture the attention of Colorado sports fans who would appreciate the publicity for their mascot.

Supposedly, when asked if it would be OK to put the burro on the train, Ralph Budd, never one to turn down publicity, responded, “I guess one more jackass on this train won’t make any difference.”

Poor Zeph, apparently unable to appreciate the importance of his symbolic role, brayed constantly, and suffered the additional indignity of having his cage topple over on a curve at high speed, pinning young Wayne briefly.

Fortunately, no one was injured, the train sped on and the wireless reports — and the braying — continued uninterrupted.

Fixes on The Fly

Several glitches added to the drama of the day.

First, the start of the trip had to be delayed while a replacement roller bearing was flown in by private plane from Omaha, and then, just after leaving the Denver yards, the electrical generator died, due to a door slamming on a cable.

Roy Baer, the ranking Mechanic on board, volunteered to hold the broken ends together while Jack Ford restarted the engine, a fix that saved the run but seriously burned Baer’s hands.

Finally, the extensive use of the train’s air horn eventually exhausted the supply of air in the braking system, requiring that the compressor be refilled in transit by opening the throttle fully.

The World Record Run

At 5:04:40 a.m. on May 26, 1934, in Denver, the Zephyr rolled forward, breaking the starting tape and initiating the official clock. Another tape, this one at the Halsted Street station in Chicago, would be broken 13:05:04 hours later, stopping the clock and placing the Pioneer Zephyr in the history books for a nonstop speed and distance run of 1,015 miles.

Up until that day the record for the identical run, but with stops for coal and water, was 25 ¾ hours.

For a population whose conception of speed was attuned to the automobile, typically traveling at 30 miles per hour, the word that a train would be passing through at 100 miles an hour was stunning. Many thousands turned out along the route to catch a glimpse of the Zephyr.

Among the throngs was Ford’s own family. Ford had telephoned them the night before, warning them that replacing the broken bearing might delay the start, but if they learned from the radio that it had left on time, they should go to the Eola Road crossing to see the train pass by.

You can almost hear the family pride in the telegram they sent to Jack through the railroad *train order hoop*: “We will be at the crossing east of Eola in the dirt road tonight STOP Watch for us STOP”

They listened to the radio all day and went to the crossing at 5:30 p.m. It may have been hard for anyone aboard to “watch for” anyone at that crossing — Jack later told them his speed through Eola was 112 miles per hour — but if Jack was able to see any details, he might have taken note of Merritt’s clothing.

May 26 was the night of his son’s senior prom at East High.

‘Platinum Blonde Goes Hollywood’

Two days after its arrival in Chicago, Jack Ford ran the Zephyr as an excursion train to Aurora and back, for the benefit of the Traffic Club of Chicago but for the rest of the summer, it was parked at the Century of Progress Fair at the Chicago lakefront, where many thousands of visitors were able to tour it, under Jack Ford’s watchful eye.

Many more thousands would soon be able to see the train, at full throttle, no less, because she was shortly to become a movie star.

RKO Pictures obtained the right to use the train, which the contract stated could only be driven by Jack Ford, in a new movie, “Silver Streak”, a drama that began with a generational clash over the economics of railroading and ended with a heart-pounding race to save lives at the Hoover Dam.

RKO obviously was responding to the public’s interest in the train and the new era of speed it ushered in, and Ralph Budd once again proved his talent for publicity for his beloved train.

The movie, starring Charles Starrett, Sally Blaine and William Farnum, was released in December 1934, putting a Hollywood flourish on the conclusion of a remarkable two years in the Depression era.

From the first concept in 1932 to what one wag quipped was “another platinum blonde gone Hollywood,” the time of the Pioneer Zephyr was an inspired chapter in railroading history. Many more zephyr-type trains would be built over the next few decades, some of them with Vista Dome cars made in Aurora. The Zephyr’s aesthetic of streamlining would for many years be the ultimate in glamorous travel.

But it all began with economic pressure on an old industry, and the tireless genius of one leader who gathered the best ideas, put them inside a gleaming silver skin, and changed the business.

‘From the Roundhouse to the Silver Screen’ Fundraiser

The Aurora Historical Society Spring Fundraiser, “From the Roundhouse to the Silver Screen”, will be held from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday, April 28, 2019, at Two Brothers Roundhouse in Aurora. Tickets are $65 per person and include one free drink.

There will be hors d’oeuvres, a talk on Burlington history, a buffet supper and a showing of the 1934 film “Silver Streak.”  Visit www.aurorahistory.net or 630-906-0650 to reserve.

In writing this article, the author relied heavily on J.W. Rediske’s 2002 book The Pioneer Zephyr, available at the Aurora Historical Society Gift Shop, 20 E. Downer Pl. 60505 or online at www.aurorahistory.net. $19.95 plus tax.

Mary Clark Ormond for the Aurora Historical Society — April 23, 2019

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